OK, I realize that the third word in the title doesn’t exist, and that the second one is a stretch.

The connection between high levels of biodiversity within an ecosystem and increased stability and resilience is fairly well understood. The more genetic diversity there is within the plant and animal communities, the more likely the overall population will withstand disturbances like famine, shifts in climate, or diseases. Does that theory of diversity hold true, for example, when looking at an organization’s approaches to raising the quality of life for rural communities? Or strengthening the economic stability of a region?

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At Efrain and Luz Maria Solis’s house, some serious retaining walls were built to capture soil eroding from yards up-slope. The 20ft x 3oft garden contains a mix of plantains, yucca, mint, squash, hibiscus, grasses for animal forage, and tomato and pepper seedlings. The biodiversity in these kitchen gardens helps to ensure that families will always have something to harvest, and no one kind of disease or pest will wipe their whole garden out.

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Two years ago farmer Jose Natividad Padilla planted ten acres of citrus trees. The EcoCentro worked with him to fill in the space between the young trees with plantains, canavalia beans, and squash and watermelon crops. Increasing the biodiversity of these larger fields not only increases their productivity and economic value, but will help to conserve water and protect the soil from erosion by establishing dense root structures.

The team at the EcoCentro believes it does. They are taking a super diverse approach to working with rural communities in Nagarote, Nicaragua. Workshops in companion planting and forest gardening encourage biodiversity, a handful of ecotechnologies like fuel-efficient stoves, rainwater catchment systems, and composting toilets help to conserve natural resources, and working with people who may only have 1/4 acre as well as with farmers who manage 25 acres of land makes it possible to have a significant impact within a community.

Theoretically, there are many arguments for community development organizations to have a diverse approach toward solving environmental and economic problems. No one solution will fit the many types of people in a community, and not all them experience the same problems. But what are the costs associated with tackling so many approaches at once? We spent some time over the last two weeks digging into the programs that the EcoCentro offers and trying to flesh out how they are connected, which activities support others, and what kinds of the benefits are reaped from different approaches.

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Veterinary student Juan Pablo disinfects a small wound in the leg of a calf at a one family’s house. Animals are an integral part of the rural family’s income and food security. In the past, the EcoCentro has heavily promoted the use of animal fertilizers in compost, and are now offering resources to help maintain the health of those animals as well. 

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EcoCentro team member Eduardo talks with Magali Solis about maintenance for her fuel-efficient stove. The Solis family harvest all their own wood from land they own outside the village. The new stove has saved Magali hours of time cutting and hauling firewood. 

We started with a simple graph of a multitude of programs – school and family gardens, a farmer’s market, co-investments in cash crops, agroecological extension services, ecotechnologies, and hosting voluntourism groups. As we began to discuss the interconnections between programs, different classifications of relationships began to emerge. We talked about liquid capital – the cash needed for agricultural investments or supplies to build a stove – and “corazon” capital – the “feel-good” social capital gained by supporting educational and community-strengthening activities like intercultural exchanges and school gardens. We talked about the strengths and weaknesses of relying on certain programs to generate income, and the risks associated with them. The market leapt out as an “indicator” program – if it is going well and farmers are coming and selling things, then it means that the gardens and farms are doing well.

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Can you see all the hearts? Hint – they aren’t all red.

Hopefully this was the first of many ongoing visioning exercises the team will have on the programming structure. We didn’t come to any concrete decisions, but a few things jumped out. Many activities that support food security also have the potential to generate huge amounts of “corazon” capital (heart capital!), monitoring and tracking each program – both the costs and the measurable impact – will be super important going forward, and every program positively benefited at least one other one: a hopeful indicator that the biodiversity, technodiversity, and scaleversity of the EcoCentro’s work will increase the resilience of the both the EcoCentro and the communities who work with it.

 

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Wednesday I spent the morning on the back of a motorcycle driven by Fanny Mercado, a graduate of the UNAN Agroecology program who is working for SosteNica‘s EcoCentro and is in charge of helping six local schools create and take care of educational gardens.

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We hit some traffic along the route to Chilama.

When we conducted a survey at the end of a project promoting family gardens a few years ago, one of the most common reasons that crops failed was because children or pets destroyed them. Families here often live several generations in one house, with a small yard, and space to run around is also valuable! When we stopped by to check on the gardens, we always made sure to involve the youngest family members so they learned to understand and respect the plants. But not all kids have that opportunity at home – so school gardens are another place where they can learn to value gardening.

When Fanny visits the schools weekday mornings, a few students are selected to work with her each day so that they get to integrate into the work. Sometime if there is an activity that is appropriate for all the children, the teacher will invite Fanny into the classroom. When we arrived at each school, the kids were excited to see her, and clearly saw the opportunity to work in the garden as a prized experience.

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Fanny works with a group of students to start a compost pile in the corner of the school yard next to the garden. In this school, they are close enough to the urban center to have potable water (with water pressure!) from the city. 

The drought right now at the end of the dry season is very serious. Even though the students take on the chore of watering the gardens twice a day, the gardens in full sun have had very low germination rates. At some schools, there are only artisanal wells and no water pressure, so the children draw water by hand and walk it to the garden to water. Now is the time to start seeds in the shade – tomatoes, beets, peppers, onions – so that they can be transplanted in a few weeks when the rains start.

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Fanny starts the hard work of cranking the wheel to bring water up from the well to water the garden in Chilama. 

At the first garden we went to the importance of a fence became incredibly obvious. The elementary school in the village of Silvio Mayorga is in the middle of a group of houses. The barbed wire fences don’t keep the chickens from the surrounding families out of the schoolyard. Just outside the chain link fence surrounding the garden, the dirt was filled with the marks of chicken feet scratching and digging for bugs or sprouted seeds. Fanny told me that before there was a fence, they planted squash seeds in the garden. A few days later a neighbor’s pig escaped and spent a lovely evening digging himself a cool spot to spend the night in the damp soil of the garden. So this time they waited until the fence was built to plant any seeds.

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Radishes!

At the school in the village of Valle de Jesús a boy ran out to greet us. “What are we going to plant! I want to plant seeds!” But the fence there isn’t finished yet. A group of parents had come over the weekend and put posts up, but it wasn’t finished yet. He was disappointed, so before we left Fanny pulled out her seed packets and gave him a few watermelon seeds to plant at his house. Whether they sprout or not, it’s great to see such enthusiasm here for gardening.

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Two young sisters in Chilama carefully water the beds with a bowl to not disturb the sprouting seeds. The stand to the right will hold a tank of water to operate a small drip irrigation system.

I receive many comments from people who want to come to Nicaragua and get dirty – volunteer on a working farm or with an organization promoting sustainable farming or gardening.  So here is a quick list (by no means exhaustive!) of recommendations with organizations and volunteer opportunities I personally have experience with.  If you are planning a trip, I have also written about my general recommendations for how to prepare and what to bring with you!

A note about volunteering in a developing country:  When I first began researching volunteer abroad opportunities ten years ago, I was taken aback at the fees requested by many organizations.  Why should I pay to volunteer?  Isn’t my help enough?  After living in a developing country and supervising volunteers I understand why and believe it is very important to take into consideration.  The time and investment in training volunteers to adapt to a new culture, a new language, entirely different transportation systems and work ethics is time intensive and costly.  A days salary at minimum wage is approximately half of what a bed in a hostel costs.  Trading a day’s worth of (probably unskilled, at least at first) work for room and board just doesn’t make economic sense for many NGOs.  Research the costs of living in the area where you want to work and make sure that is part of your decision and commitment.  There are some hostels who offer discount rates for guests who are volunteers, or who run their own charitable projects and may offer room and board in exchange for working with their initiative, but in general expect to at least pay your own room and board.  Making a contribution to the organization you are volunteering for is a way to ensure that your time volunteering really does contribute a net positive to their efforts and doesn’t become a strain on their resources because of the additional time/attention you require.  If they ask for a fee to volunteer, ask them how they calculated it to understand their justification before making a judgement about whether it’s reasonable or not.

Study Spanish First: Your ability to contribute to an organization is severely limited if your communication is limited to English!  Unless you have a specific skill that you know you have to offer and know that you are willing to help an organization by doing more office based work like online research, writing grant applications in English, helping with marketing materials, or web design, dedicating the first portion of your trip to language acquisition will be well worth your time.  If your interests lie in working with the rural sector here (as I imagine most of this blog’s readers are), I highly recommend the Hijos del Maiz language school in Achuapa.  The school offers one-to-one classes with young members of the rural community of El Lagartillo who have been certified as Spanish language instructors.  The school is unique in Nicaragua in that it provides a real rural living experience with comfortable accommodations, quality instruction, and the ability to spend the afternoons helping cattle, corn and bean farmers, learning to cook traditional Nicaraguan foods, or volunteering in a rural school.  I highly recommend this school to anyone who wants to understand not only Nicaraguan Spanish but also the campesino lifestyle.

Volunteer for Sustainable Farming/Gardening: Many people are interested in supporting sustainable gardening and farming in Nicaragua.  The first thing you should do is be realistic about what type of skills you can offer – even if you already speak fluent Spanish.  What experiences do you have that can contribute to the organization?  Be upfront about what you can bring to a project when you first contact an organization.  If you do have experience farming in the states or Europe, be prepared to encounter completely different crops, diseases, and issues than you are familiar with!  Budget time for your own learning before you will be able to then teach others.  You definitely don’t need to have had direct experience growing plantains, yuca, chayote, passionfruit, or pitaya in order to participate in a gardening initiative (although if you do that’s a definite plus!)  Experience working with youth, graphic design, networking skills, connections to agricultural universities that could offer technical support, are all good ways you can boost the efforts of a small NGO without having direct farming experience yourself.  Here is a short list of a few organizations I have come across that I know have the conditions to take volunteers and are good starting places – contact them and they can probably refer you on if they don’t offer the experience you are looking for or it doesn’t seem like a good match.  There are hundreds of organizations in Nicaragua and this is only a very few – if you have had experience volunteering with gardening or farming specifically for an organization and want to list it send me the link and your recommendation and I will post it.

NicaPhoto: An excellent small NGO in Nagarote that provides after-school education for primary and secondary school students.  The project includes several opportunities to garden with the children – in a good-sized project garden that grows food for the kids lunches, or in the garden/park/playground at the nursery school NicaPhoto helped to build.  Ronnie Maher, the director, is from the US so she can help with language transition and has extensive experience organizing volunteer groups.  

Norwalk Nagarote Sister City Project:  Also in Nagarote, close to Managua, this is a sister-city project that also has many opportunities to work with youth – sports, education, computer and English classes – and runs a sustainable educational farm.  Their farm provides food for nursery school snacks, events, and also the local market.  At 2 manzanas (3.4 acres) it definitely qualifies as a small farm and is a great opportunity for someone with some farming experience in the states who would like to contribute to an agricultural project on a larger scale than a kitchen garden.  The farm is managed jointly with SosteNica, another US-based NGO working with sustainable housing, farming, and Microcredit in Nicaragua.

UCA San Ramon: This is an active, vibrant union of small coffee cooperatives.  The UCA San Ramon was one of the first small farmer cooperatives to invest in rural eco-tourism and they currently offer a range of tourism opportunities from sustainably built adobe rural hostels to home stays and wild-life treks.  There are a myriad of opportunities to volunteer with coffee farmers, in kitchen garden projects, or with some of their other agricultural products they support that contribute to local food security and economy.  They are also known for their progressive development policies that include gender equality, anti-domestic violence and sexual education.

UCA Miraflor: Located in the cloud forest reserve Miraflor just east of Estelí, this small farmer coffee cooperative also has a reputable community tourism project that offer either a night or two at the house of a campesino family or a longer term stay with volunteering in the coffee plantations (make sure you plan your trip between November and February if you are intent on being there for the harvest!), in a kitchen garden project, or in the local schools.

Center for Biointensive Farming in Nicaragua:  This is a new demonstration, investigation, and training center for the Biointensive farming method in Nicaragua is in Tipitapa, very accessible from Managua and Masaya.  Strictly organic, the biointensive method has been scientifically proven to conserve water, build soil, and provide more food per area than other types of sustainable farming.  As it becomes more established, the center would benefit from some enthusiastic, independent volunteers to put some labor into its first season.  The list of members of the Biointensive Movement in Nicaragua is a great page to browse if you are looking to connect with other organizations in Nicaragua that promote this type of small-scale farming.

Nuevas Esperanzas:  You can live comfortably in the vibrant colonial city of León and volunteer with Nuevas Esperanzas, which works with communities in the impressively volcano chain east of the city.  Known for their high-quality work with creating potable water systems and rainwater catchment tanks, the organization also works with sustainable farming and food security issues, family gardens, and is starting a rural community tourism initiative.

A colorful array of locally produced products in Achuapa, Nicaragua from sesame oil to carao syrup to nancite wine!

A colorful array of locally produced products in Achuapa, Nicaragua from sesame oil to carao syrup to nancite wine!

Once upon a time I believed that creating and supporting healthy local food systems meant eliminating imported products – for example, sticking to a 100 mile-diet.  I believed that preaching a local food only diet could solve societal issues such as a disconnect from agricultural businesses and the source of our food, struggling local economies, and poor health and nutrition.  But I began to question that belief as my work in Nicaragua evolved from development centered NGO work to trade oriented development work.  As I have gotten to know several fair trade cooperatives, their histories and their work today, I have had to reassess to a certain extent my intense focus on the benefits of consuming only local food.  Maybe there is a space for positive global trade, one that can, despite the enormous capital and fuel resources, create net positive social impact and work pretty hard on the environmental ones too.  After all, while many local farms in the US have sprung up, grown and profited off of the local food movement, local independent coffee roasters have too!  In general I am a supporter of positive campaigning (put your energy behind what you DO want – if not instead than at least as well as what you DON”T want).  I would not recommend to any local food advocate to go an a campaign to convince the masses to stop drinking their coffee.  Not worth your energy.

It is worth your energy to drink the right coffee though!  Over the years I have found that the agricultural cooperatives I work with here that export coffee and sesame share many of the same values as movements I connect with in the states, such as the local food movement.  The funds they generate – through exporting a commodity to people in countries whose climates or economies that do not support the production of that crop – are often invested in funding environmental youth movements, organic fertilizer production, educational scholarships, and strengthening local food networks.  Every coffee coop we work with has or is currently developing a national brand of export quality coffee to market nationally.  This focus on raising the quality of the Nicaraguan coffee culture through national distribution is a strategy that I find both empowering and an example of good business.  Investing in a product for local markets will help the coops grow, reach new markets, and give them a way to leverage the difference between national and international prices to make the best business decisions each year – as well as strengthening the local food system by providing Nicaraguans the opportunity to drink high quality Nicaraguan coffee.

Another coop we work with, the Juan Francisco Paz Silva Cooperative in Achuapa, exports sesame oil to Europe, mostly for use in cosmetics.  The exports work like the engine that fuels the Cooperative.  It means the Cooperative provides jobs for locals (many of them youth) to run the oil press, the business administration, and the services the coop offers, it generates fair trade premiums – funds that are ear marked for social or environmental projects.  The profits are invested into the business and distributed amongst its members, similar to dividends in a public company.

Doña Socorro displays her handmade pottery at a coop sponsored fair.

Doña Socorro displays her handmade pottery at a coop sponsored fair.

Because the cooperative has been successful both in producing a quality product that has demand on the market and in investing their profits in the community, other organizations are attracted to working with them, and they have been able to collaborate with local and international development organizations on projects improving farm diversity, establishing technical schools, improving access to potable water, and strengthening local food networks.  Over the last three years, the coop has invested in developing a local line of products using what is available and abundant – including sesame, a very nutritious grain which is not a staple of Nicaraguan cuisine.  Through the creativity of some coop members and employees, and now through a new initiative to Recognize the Unpaid Work of Women in the cost of the sesame and use those funds to help women fully participate in local communities and economies, the coop is lending their facilities and marketing support to the development of new products.  The first Nicaraguan-produced Tahini, which has at least made a splash amongst some local expats, was revolutionized when Doña Ernestina, who works at the coop, mixed it with honey produced by the coop and created a sweet sticky spread that appeals more to a Nicaraguan palate.  Individuals and groups of women in Achuapa have the full support of the cooperative in developing and marketing foods made from local ingredients to local communities – funded through the export of sesame oil and sesame seeds to communities as far away as Europe, the US, and Japan.

Suddenly, export vs. local isn’t so black and white anymore.  When a democratic organization with a strong social and environmental vision successfully enters an international market, the impact can be felt very locally.

So, excuse the lag in posts to a very time-consuming but fun and exciting new Urban Gardening project in Nagarote – a post on that is promised soon!

Meanwhile, about a week ago one of my greatest fears since arriving in Nicaragua over 2 1/2 years ago came to pass.  I have seen several scorpions, alacranes, in various places here in León and out in the campo but have been lucky enough to avoid physicial contact.  In every previous encounter, there was a helpful calm Nicaraguan nearby who could chuckle at my alarm and even-paler chela face while calmly smushing the scorpion with a stick or a shoe.  In one instance I begged a ten-year old boy to help me, and he happily climbed up into the bunkbed in the room where I was staying and skillfully sliced the three-inch scorpion on the wall in two, saving me from a night of sleepless horror.

This time I was not so lucky.  Completely unknowingly I pulled a cardboard box out from under a deesk where it was stored and lept back as I felt a jolt so strong my whole arm felt electrocuted.  I thought for a minute I had hit an exposed electical cord, but the pain didn’t dissapate immediately like it does when you accidentally touch a charged wire.  There was absolutely no mark on my hand as evidence of the attack, but when my Nica friend Maria Jose who happened to be over at the time lifted the top of the cardboard box with a broomstick, there was the cowardly scorpion, under the top flap.  Meanwhile, my hand was pulsing.  The pain was definitely strongest in the tip of my middle finger, where the stinger must have struck me, but I could feel a fuzzy electric-like pain up into my elbow joint.

They are fierce looking!! The one in my box had a fatter flat dark body and tail, possibly a female waiting to mate or with eggs, according to Maria Jose.

I’ll admit I did not react very calmly.  I can only imagine what the neighbors thought as I stomped and yelled, alternately shaking my hand and squeezing my poor throbbing finger.  I called Nick, while Maria Jose rumaged around and found some pliers, and calmly disposed of the fat black scorpion.  She was justifiably quite proud of it too, and waved the oozing tail around to assure me that it was indeed conquered.

Nick mobilized the barrio, and in twenty minutes I had our doctor friend calling me with which antihistamine to buy, a friend on the way to a pharmacy, and two neighbors and a nurse they had found in the neighborhood arguing over whether that really was the right thing to give me.  Among other advise, I was told to chew on 7 basil leaves at once, eat little bits of dulce (unrefined brown sugar), drink strong sweet black coffee, run my hand under cold water, and suck on ice cubes.  I did all of the above.  Meanwhile, the pain was not residing, rather the fuzzy pins and needles feeling was spreading through my hand, and then my tongue starting tingling, and finally my teeth as well so that when I clenched by jaw I could feel vibrations through my teeth.  Luckily I never did feel like my throat started closing or have difficulty breathing, which is what our doctor said the next stage of the allergic reaction could be.

In typical Nica style, the  village in my house never really did agree, so I finally went with our doctor’s advice and the nurse injected me with an antihistamine, leaving me with two more to take orally the next day and some mildly offended neighbors whose advise to buy a different anti-allergen was not taken.  After the shot, the fuzzy pain didn’t go away but did stop spreading.  It started subsiding a few hours later, but it wasn’t until about 24 hours later that my hand and tongue fully stopped tingling.  In hindsght, maybe it wasn’t so bad, but I would like to check off scorpion sting from my list of Nicaraguan adventures and not go back to it again.  Like most wild animals, I know they don’t attack unless they feel threatened or disturbed, so I for one am much more cautious pulling out rarely-used books and boxes and putting on shoes.  So that’s why Nicas bang their shoes up-side down before putting them on…..

For SosteNica´s promotional tour this fall I´ve made a short video highlighting our environmental work with borrowers.   Tell me what you think.

Thursday it rained in Nagarote for the first time in 48 days.

This is the winter, or rainy season, when small farmers plant and harvest all their corn, sorghum, beans, and pasture for the whole year.  In October the rains will cease, and not start again until May.

Normally, there is a month-long dry spell that starts around the middle of June called the Canicula, or mini-summer.  This year it just kept going, and going.  Thursday morning I was visiting clients with Luis Rivas from CEPRODEL, and we kept hearing the same stories.  “I haven’t been able to plant corn, or sorghum, because it’s too dry.”  Here people often say caer agua, or water that falls, instead of lluvia, the word for rain.  “Tengo que esperar hasta que cae agua!” Everyone is working hard to keep the trees from the reforestation project alive.  We timed the project so that the trees would be distributed at the beginning of the rainy season and would be well established by the time summer hit, but we didn’t anticipate the arrival of el niño this year.

A dry struggling sesame field

A dry struggling sesame field

Friday I visited some agricultural clients with Edgard, from the León office.  The soy, sesame, and yucca were established, seeded in the early months of winter when it was raining.  The crops were all showing signs of stress, however.  On some plants up to a third of the flowers in the soy, which is just beginning to set fruit, where dried and brown.  The sesame, which should be over a foot by now, was stunted at a couple inches, but still alive. Edgard and I discussed the factors involved in deciding whether to release the next round of credit for the farms.

Agricultural crop credit works differently that urban loans or even loans to buy cattle.  Because of the long season for crops like yucca (seven months from seeding to harvesting, not including soil preparation) and the incontrolable weather risks involved, credit is not dispersed all at once.  A farmer works out a plan with the CEPRODEL officer, how much they need for soil preparation, to purchase seeds, to hire labor for planting and weeding, and to harvest.  The amounts for each activity are released only when they happen, not months ahead of time. This way, if the crop dies during a drought, or if the harvest is significantly lower than expected, the farmer is only in debt part of what he intended to take out. The client also only pays interest on the portion he has been given, so the delayed payment also helps keep the loan affordable.  The farmer can also choose not to withdraw the whole credit if it isn’t needed.

All loans are given for specific activities, and amounts vary depending on the crop the farmer wants to plant.  The timeline, cost of labor, and cost of supplies are standardized for many crops, and are tailored to the acreage of each client.  But the ‘flexibility’ of tailoring each credit personally results in an inflexible credit at the end of the day.  One of the farmers we visited was frustrated, because he had solicited credit for yucca and sesame, and he hasn’t been able to seed the sesame because of el niño. He is running out of time, because even if it starts to rain regularly this week, there probably aren’t enough weeks of rain left to ensure a good sesame harvest.  He could plant beans, which require less time.  That is probably what he will do, but he won’t be able to use credit to buy the seeds without returning to the office and re-working his plan with Edgard to tailor it to beans instead of sesame. I can understand how that is frustrating, on the other hand it seems like the rules are there for the farmers advantage in the long run.

When it did rain in Nagarote in the afternoon the sun burned through the clouds to the west adding theatrical lighting to the long awaited storm.

When it did rain in Nagarote in the afternoon the sun burned through the clouds to the west adding theatrical lighting to the long awaited storm.